by Lorie Lewis Ham
Recently we had the opportunity to interview local performer, director, and Fresno State Professor Thomas-Whit Ellis. He is currently, Professor of Theatre and Department Chair of Africana Studies at FSU.
KRL: Are you from Fresno? If not, where are you from and how did you end up here?
TWE: [I was] born and raised in Sacramento—public schools—Track and Field Scholarship at Sacramento State in high hurdles. [I was] College Division champion, West Coast Relays, twice.
I Studied Literature, Broadcast Journalism and Theatre Arts, and attended Michigan State (MFA). I taught at community colleges in Sacramento prior to three years at the University of Georgia just before arriving at FSU in 1991.
KRL: When did you first get involved in acting and why?
TWE: During my second year at Sac State, sophomores were given last registration priority for class enrollment. One of the instructors was actively recruiting Black students at the registration site. His course, Black Theatre, fulfilled a GE, so I reluctantly took it, hoping it was an “easy A.”
One of the requirements of the class was for all students to audition for the professor’s play, which was a part of the regular Drama Department’s season. I auditioned for one of the choir singers and got in. Simultaneously, we were doing some acting exercises in the class, one of which required my taking on the role of typical Black preacher, something I knew a lot about having been raised in the Black church and being the grandson of a pastor. The professor was silently impressed.
One of the actors in the stage play being directed by this professor dropped out, complaining that he deserved a larger role than the cameo role of the preacher. The director immediately tapped me to do the part which I didn’t want, due to lack of experience and acute shyness. After some coaching and confidence building, I pretty much embraced the character which appeared in a climatic funeral scene.
This play was entered in intercollegiate competition, the regional round occurring at Fresno State. Our play won for our region and was featured as one of the top 10 college productions in the nation; we presented at the JFK Center for the Performing Arts. This was my first play and it pretty much went straight to the top. From that point on, I began my studies in drama, performing a string of African-American plays, assisting the director in a few others, stage managing, then being allowed to direct one-act plays.
I had performed in several plays in about five years, but they were all Black. I soon decided to study traditional (white) theatre and chose to attend MSU since it was, at that time, pretty devoid of diversity.
KRL: Can you tell us a little more about first part?
TWE: A small role as a pastor of a little Black church in Chicago. Ironically, my very next role was that of a heroin junkie in an original one-act play, Black Coffin. That garnered an award for Best Actor, One-Act Division, Sac State Theatre Department.
KRL: What are some of the shows you have been in, and the parts you have played, and with what companies?
George, in Of Mice and Men
Multiple Roles, in Saint Joan
Moriarty, in Sherlock Holmes
Demetrius, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Levee, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Oberon, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
And dozens of others.
Please see Thomas-Whit Ellis IMDb entries for theatrical film roles: www.imdb.com/name/nm0936913
KRL: When, why, and how did you first get involved in directing?
TWE: I was mentored by a Black professor, who pretty much guided my path, eventually encouraging me to direct after performing in several plays and showing an interest in the craft. It was a natural progression for me.
KRL: What was the first show you directed?
TWE: An original play chronicling the creative work of 60s era poet Henry Dumas: Music and I Have Come at Last. See more about him here.
KRL: Do you have a favorite type of show, both to be in, and to direct?
TWE: No real preference, but most of my work deals with the African-American experience. Ironically, I am very much drawn to comedies, but have only had the chance to direct one or two out of several dozen.
KRL: What do you like best about acting and directing?
TWE: Over the years, mainly because of lack of opportunity to act in this area, I have turned to directing exclusively. I honestly am passionate for both, but directing is more accessible. It’s part of my job. If I lived in an area with a larger Black population, [with] more opportunity, I would certainly do more acting. Having performed in a few independent film projects in recent years, I have been relieved to not have the responsibility for so many moving parts for a change, as is the case when directing.
KRL: What is the hardest?
TWE: I would have to say directing, because the responsibility grows exponentially with the dozens of moving parts associated with a production. Such as playwright’s mission, costume, set and lighting concerns, casting, director’s view, audience development, community needs and much more. Conversely, the individual actor is principally concerned with their own character development and how that meshes with other characters. This, too, is extremely challenging. However, both are equally rewarding as creative pursuits.
KRL: When did you first become a theatre professor and why did you pursue that occupation?
TWE: I was mentored by two Black university professors and several others peripherally. All of which pushed me to attempt to excel. My parents also insisted that I get a graduate degree in theatre if I intended to pursue it as a career. I had no intention of teaching, but an emergency community college position came up and I was asked to fill in. Eventually, I was asked to stay on, teaching and directing. It was all more accidental than intentional.
KRL: Can you tell us what you cover in your Black Theatre classes?
TWE: This class is a kind of potpourri of different aspects of the Black experience as a basis for creativity. We cover elements of acting, writing, culture and cultural differences in performance style and expectation.
KRL: Do you feel classes like that are more important now than ever?
TWE: Yes, for two reasons. Professional writers and actors are always needed in film, TV and stage. People can’t expect to walk in off the street into a role in Black Panther. Training is essential. The knowledge of our history and culture as it applies to the creative experience is also essential. Also, in the main, Black actors are hired to do Black parts. They have to be trained and given experience in their culture as much as whites do automatically.
Let me explain further. It’s quite common for white actors to play a variety of roles within their social and cultural context. The British often do American parts and, to some extent, vice versa. But this is all a part of a western cultural context with which white artists and intellectuals are familiar. The same applies to the variety of stories and roles associated with the African diaspora: the Caribbean, Africa, South America, Europe, etc. And in the US, we have a variety of stories, all requiring a knowledge of that subculture within the Black community.
Without proper training and education, how would a person growing up in the Central Valley understand the social and cultural context of Black families coming from the Dominican Republic and living in NYC?
Secondly, with the social climate as it is now, with the need for more attention to social justice, theatre and the performing arts remain an invaluable tool in giving voice to the aspirations of oppressed and marginalized populations. But again, without training, the individual isn’t as prepared and may not be as competitive in the casting process. So talent is crucial, but training is indispensable.
KRL: Do you foresee being able to bring more black theatre like Detroit ‘67 to Fresno State stages?
TWE: I have done several productions which speak to issues such as racial discrimination, history and culture. I now have the opportunity to do more along these lines. But I do like to offer a variety of material to the students and community. One must keep in mind that there are dozens of theaters in the greater Fresno area, but only one offers a consistent fare of material particularly voicing the Black experience. White theaters doing Black plays in the area are few and very far between. This tradition is often taken for granted, but again, in other metropolitan areas, it is an expectation to see a wider variety of diversity in production by local theaters. Hence, much of my work is centered on the Black experience.
KRL: Have you directed or acted with any community theatre companies in this area?
TWE: I have done a number of productions for churches, never really having the chance to direct anything with any of the actual theatre companies.
KRL: What do you feel has helped you the most in growing as an actor and director?
TWE: As a college student I worked for a state agency called the California Arts Council. The actual council at that time consisted of a number of leaders in their fields: Peter Coyote, Luis Valdez, Ruth Asawa, Jane Fonda, and several others. In those days, council members directly interacted with Arts Council staff, even the more lowly administrators such as myself. I was allowed so sit in on meetings, directly discuss mission and vision, offer insight and much more. All of them looked at the arts as some sort of calling. Of course they didn’t say that, but it was clear through their intense focus and approach.
All of the board members and most of the staff were artists and took their work and their calling with immense seriousness. Also, these council members were close to other heavy weights such as Maya Angelou, Sidney Poitier and others, many of whom I encountered through gatherings and meetings. These icons were making history in this field. And I had the privilege to watch and learn.
They all presented this sense that they were soldiers in a war against cultural fascism, ignorance, intolerance. I was basically indoctrinated and pretty much used these meetings and discussions and setting my path and mission.
If you love local theatre, be sure to check out Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast, which features mysteries read by local actors–many of whom you will have seen on local stages. You can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts, and also on Podbean.
Check out more local entertainment articles in our Arts & Entertainment section. We will be covering the Rogue Festival over the next week.